Home Q&R Corner Q & R Corner: June 2023

Q & R Corner: June 2023

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(Note: We did not receive this question directly from one person, but it is a summary of questions that were received by several of our provincial conference leaders.)  

The Fall 2022 issue of Direction describes a national study that brings up some very challenging conclusions related to how pastors and churches presently view and use our MB Confession of Faith. There are a number of responses to the study but no response from our national leaders. 

What is your response to this study and to the Fall issue?

Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, while some of us were invited to publish a response, the timeline didn’t work. Before I try to respond to the study itself, I should make some comments about Direction, since many of our readers may not know much about it. Direction began in 1972 and has been publishing in print (and more recently online as well) since then. All back issues are available here. The stated purpose of the journal is the following:

Direction seeks to serve the Mennonite Brethren constituency but also the wider religious scholarly community. It provides a forum for addressing biblical, theological, ethical, pastoral, educational, and evangelistic concerns, from international as well as from local perspectives. It seeks to play a role complementary to, but distinct from, both scholarly journals of a technical nature and denominational periodicals. Published twice a year (approx. 100 pages per issue), its intended audience includes educators, pastors, conference leaders, and informed church members.

 Direction is a collaborative effort between five MB schools (MB Biblical Seminary, FPU/FP Biblical Seminary, Tabor College, Columbia Bible College, and CMU) along with the CCMBC and USMB Executive Boards (although these boards have not had any role in its selection of writers, topics, or overall operation). Direction is not a publicity piece or a denominational periodical but a “forum” which means that it will include a variety of perspectives on topics—even perspectives we may not agree with or promote at CCMBC. 

The Fall 2022 issue of Direction is dedicated to reporting on the “Using the Confession of Faith” study. This “community-based research study” was overseen by Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner, funded by the MB Historical Commission through a grant, and described as a “unique opportunity to listen to in-depth interviews with pastors as they offer their perspectives about an integral aspect of the MB family” (140). The study methodology involved “seventeen in-depth, individual telephone interviews…with [Canadian] MB pastors purposively sampled to ensure a range of perspectives” (144). These “pastor-to-pastor interviews” (144) were done by “peer researchers (mostly MB pastors trained by CCMBR [Rich Janzen’s Centre for Community Based Research])” (144) allowing for “free-flowing, open conversation” (145). The study findings highlighted that “congregants are generally limited in their familiarity with the Confession of Faith” (145) and that “the Confession of Faith typically operates in the background of congregational life, only occasionally appearing in the foreground” (146). 

When it came to specific questions of the Confession of Faith impacting MB identity, biblical interpretation, and discipleship, the study highlights a lack of consensus on these questions: “An overarching theme across the interviews was the diversity of perspectives on the use of the Confession of Faith in MB congregations” (154). The feature article explains that LGBTQ+ issues (Article 11), Love and Nonresistance (Article 13), and Christian Baptism (Article 8) were the topics “that created the most inquiry, friction, and disagreement” (154). The feature article also summarizes how these seventeen pastors described their congregations’ approaches to maintaining unity within diversity of perspectives in “confessional thinking and acting” (156).

I would hope that our first response to any research study done on our MB church family would involve both thankfulness and curiosity. We have been gifted with some information that could help us understand our pastors better and by extension our churches. But we have also been given some troubling data that should spark curiosity. How did we get to the point where these pastors (and some of the responders in their published articles) express such diversity—and at times such a discouraging perspective on our Confession of Faith?

But beyond that, we also need to ask questions about the study in terms of its methodology and conclusions. The study purports to give us a troubling “diagnosis” related to our MB family. While the diagnosis might be correct, we should ask whether the study is solid enough to support it? We have also been given a suggested “treatment plan” in light of the troubling diagnosis. Again both might be true, but I would have some cautions before we embrace either conclusion.

After interviewing seventeen MB pastors, Janzen and Sumner provide us with a troubling diagnosis: “The range of pastoral perspectives demonstrates that congregations have no uniform way of thinking about or acting out the Confession of Faith” (157; emphasis added). 

First, it is a little surprising that the authors would make this generalized and conclusive statement about MB “congregations” since the study only interviewed seventeen individual pastors from seventeen congregations (out of the 230-plus MB congregations in Canada). This seems like a very small sample size upon which to make such a claim.

Second, this is a puzzling statement since Janzen and Sumner themselves recognize at the beginning of their article “that the findings are not representative of, and cannot be generalized to, all Canadian MB congregations” (145). It feels, however, that their conclusion about “congregations” is attempting to do exactly that.

Third, finding a lack of uniformity among the seventeen interviewed pastors should come as no surprise since the study deliberately selected pastors to “ensure a range of perspectives” (144). If diverse pastors were interviewed, then we should expect that the study would find diversity in their reporting of how the Confession is thought about and acted out. What the study shows is that when we begin with a deliberately chosen diverse research group and interview them, we will discover that they express diverse views. Should that surprise us?

Fourth, it is hard to know exactly what “uniformity” around the Confession of Faith would even look like. Many MB pastors and church leaders may well preach and teach in a way consistent with the Confession, yet they may rarely mention the Confession. The Confession is our summary of what the Bible teaches—so it is not intended to be the focus of preaching/teaching in the local church. It is very possible that there will be significant variety between how pastors and churches engage with the Confession but this itself may not be that troubling as long as there is agreement around what the Bible teaches in the areas of theological/ethical convictions. We might do well to engage this question more directly.

Fifth, it is surprising as well that the seventeen pastors were interviewed by other MB pastors/leaders whom they likely knew. While I certainly can’t say for sure if this affected individual responders and/or the way the “free-flowing, open conversation[s]” (145) were conducted and recorded, it seems that having neutral and unknown interviewers would have lessened the various forms of bias possible by both the responder and the interviewer.

Then when it comes to the treatment plan, Janzen and Sumner write that their study could help denominational leaders in “exploring how MBs can learn to live with diversity and difference” (157; emphasis added). The study did ask the seventeen pastors practical questions about how they have tried to deal with diversity within their own congregations but the study itself was not focused on the best way to respond to diversity within a group.

I don’t want to misread Janzen and Sumner’s article, but it feels like readers were supposed to leave with these two takeaways: 1) Canadian MB congregations have very significant (likely irreconcilable) theological/ethical diversity in relation to the MB Confession of Faith AND 2) in light of this news, the best response from denominational leadership would be to stop opposing this diversity and rather learn to live with it.

There are a variety of helpful and not so helpful approaches that leaders can take in response to fundamental diversity that threatens the unity of an affinity group like a denomination. When a sports team discovers significant diversity in relation to its goals, core values, and strategies, the coaches may decide to simply accept or even celebrate that diversity, or they may decide that at some point the diversity actually undermines their shared purpose and effective mission as a team. Some individual members may be asked to move closer toward the team. The coaches may also re-invest energy in team-building strategies to call the team back so they can pull together in the same direction.

The Janzen and Sumner study invites us toward curiosity about responding to diversity. What actually is the level of theological/ethical diversity that exists firstly among our pastors/leaders and then secondarily among those who claim “membership” within our local churches? And what should be our provincial and national leadership response to whatever level of diversity we discover? Is there a time when a church family should call family members (viz. pastors and churches) back toward its shared mission, vision, and theological/ethical convictions? What kind of team-building activities would bless our larger church family? The present study encourages us to ask key questions about our shared theological/ethical convictions and how they relate to our identity as a church family.

But your question was not only about the study but about the responses that were published in the Fall 2022 issue. Since Direction is not a denominational publicity piece but a “forum,” a disclaimer should probably be included—“the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of CCMBC or USMB leadership.” Three of the first four writers appear to accept both the diagnosis of significant diversity and the treatment plan of living with (or even celebrating) theological/ethical diversity. Here are a few quotations from these writers:

Lynn Jost: “Belonging is enhanced by the expansion of diversity” (168). “I propose retiring the 1999 Confession and replacing it with a simple statement of faith that more closely resembles the church’s first confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’” (169). “Because Jesus welcomes all to the table, so must we” (170).

Lee Kosa: “…given the biblical precedent for renegotiating longstanding identity markers and the miracle of mutually expansive identity that can take place through the joining of difference in the body of Christ, MBs can welcome this renegotiation as an opportunity to discern the Spirit’s wild and enriching work among us” (178). 

Paul Doerksen: “The role of faithful openness here is ignored at our spiritual peril; when our shared Confession is used as a tool of containment, of suppression or sincere inquiry, even—God forbid—of blatant oppression, then we know that we no longer are practicing the act and event of confession as a shared cry of acknowledgment. Confession understood and practiced as engagement with God can help us resist the temptation to lock down our Confession to introduce (false) stability and forestall perceived crises” (185).

While there is no space here to debate their suggested actions, these responses should provoke our curiosity. What kind of church do these writers want our MB family to look like? What types of diversity are they advocating for and suggesting would be enriching and enhancing for our family? (Certainly not all types of diversity would move us in that direction.) Would there even be an CCMB family long term if these suggestions were embraced? While maintaining a denominational family is not my highest priority if what replaces it is more faithful to Jesus and the Kingdom, I have significant hesitations that these suggestions would produce that result.

What do we plan to do next?

We (as in our CCMBC office and the NFLT) want to be open to learning what we can from the study and from this issue of Direction. Even though we may have methodological questions about the study itself (as well as other questions related to the final shape of the Fall 2022 issue), we have been provoked to reflect more carefully on the questions and suggestions raised. There is a level of honesty in this issue that allows us to hear things more loudly than we otherwise might. So what are we doing?

We have been motivated to revise the 2018 “Nature and Function of the Confession” into the new “Introduction to the MB Confession of Faith” (2023) available here. We believe that this revised document addresses some key questions and invites our larger family into a more positive understanding of the purpose of our Confession. We are also updating the resources connected to our Confession of Faith. For a sample from “Article 1: God” follow the link here; for Article 8: Baptism follow the link here.

Because of some of the feedback contained in the study and from respondents, we are proposing a restructuring of the CCMBC Ministry Credentialing Questionnaire to promote a greater engagement with our Confession of Faith. We believe that our MB Confession is a valued treasure that has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Any comparison of our Confession to a cell phone contract (pp. 147; 190) should lead us to reflect more carefully on how we have gotten to this point.

Listening to these voices has caused us to increase engagement with the MB Confession of Faith in the MB Herald and through structured events like the Pastoral Credentialing Orientation and our Equip conferences. 

We also want to work more on team-building activities that invite our leaders and churches into our shared Kingdom vision and mission, centred on Jesus, and faithful to the vision of the biblical writers. Any team without a compelling and widely shared vision will have no other option than to live with a crippling diversity pulling it in conflicting directions. Let’s hope that is not our future. 

Thanks for your question. I hope that this response is helpful. 

Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)

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